TECH TALK: Technology’s Next Markets: Thin Client-Thick Server

Tech Talk: You talked of using older PCs as desktops. But what about the software? Wont the software run very slow on these old / low-powered computers?

Deviant Entrepreneur: This is where the server-centric computing architecture comes in. Todays new high-powered desktops are actually more than good enough to become servers. By doing all the processing on the servers and using the clients primarily for taking user input and displaying the graphical screens, it now becomes possible to create a scalable enterprise architecture. Adding new users just means adding new, low-cost thin clients. Moores Law ensures that we will get double the server processing power for the same investment in 18 months.

TT: What kind of software will this solution support?

DE: As the New York Times would put if it were in the technology business: All the software thats fit to run. One of the big transformations that the Internet has wrought over the past few years is the shift from client-server software to web-centric software. In this case, all thats needed is the web browser. Web Services technologies likeXML and SOAP are only hastening this trend. This makes software independent of the client platform.

For most users, even today, the key applications are email, web browser, the office suite (comprising a word processor, spreadsheet, presentation package), PDF reader and an instant messaging client. Support this on the Windows platform needs MS-Windows and MS-Office, which can cost upwards of USD 500 per desktop. The solution lies in using Linux as the base, KDE or Gnome as the graphical desktop, and open source applications like Evolution (for mail), Mozilla (as the web browser), GAIM (as the unified IM client) and OpenOffice. Taken together, these applications are very much compatible with the Windows world. For example, OpenOffice can read and write most MS-Office files. The total cost of these applications: zero.

In addition, by centralising the software on the server, upgrades become trivial no need to go to each client and make changes. All the desktops can be managed from the server. Using Linux as the base pretty much eliminates the risk of viruses, which is today a big hazard for most users.

TT: What if users wanted to run Windows applications? After all, most enterprises have a legacy of applications which have been developed and these are likely to be on the Windows platform.

DE: Good question! The first option to consider is Wine, which is an open-source Windows emulator. There are also priced solutions like Crossover from CodeWeavers and Win4Lin from NeTraverse which enable running Windows applications on Linux. Crossover does Windows emulation, while Win4Lin runs Windows (95 and 98) on Linux, on which other applications can be run. They cost between USD 60-125 per user. While this may sound like a lot, one must consider the savings on hardware and the advantages of centralised manageability.

Heres a practical approach: it is likely that there will be many users who only need the base set of applications (email, browser, Office) for them, the open source applications are more than good enough. There will always be some power users who will need to run Windows-specific applications. They can continue to run Windows, but use OpenOffice and Mozilla (thus easing a switch from Windows to Linux at a later stage). Thin mix-and-match, rather than wholesale replacement.

In addition, for the new users, one can consider an open-source solution with thin clients, thus reducing dramatically the cost of providing computing to new users. At a conservative estimate, the hardware-software savings with an open-source-based thin client can be 75% or more as compared to a Microsoft Windows-Office fat desktop.

Tomorrow: Early Adopters

Published by

Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.